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Cover Review

Hall of Mirrors

THE BOOK OF ILLUSIONS: A Novel, By Paul Auster, Henry Holt: 336 pp., $25

September 08, 2002|JONATHAN LEVI | Jonathan Levi is a contributing writer to Book Review.

"Everyone thought he was dead." With seeming transparency, Paul Auster opens "The Book of Illusions," his 10th and most affecting and virtuosic novel. Auster has always packed a library of imagination into his novels, and illusion has always projected its tantalizing images on the cave walls of Auster's writing. His Cartesian musings on life, death and the many illusions the living must fabricate to keep the sputtering reels of their lives turning have been integral parts of his voice throughout his many novels, from the collegiate fantasies of "Moon Palace" to "Timbuktu," whose hero is the canine companion of a schizophrenic.

But in "The Book of Illusions," an older and wiser Auster has added a new ingredient to the metaphysical play and deft storytelling, a sadness that colors all illusion, that creates a stunningly moving and very real portrait of a man over-marked by death.

The "dead" man is a lost star of the silent screen, an actor named Hector Mann, who, after making a dozen two-reel comedies, disappeared on the night of Nov. 23, 1928. The commentator on Mann's apparent death is a Vermonter named David Zimmer, a professor of comparative literature, an authority on Mann (having written the only biography of the auteur) and an authority on death.

On June 7, 1985, Zimmer's wife and two sons disappeared in a plane crash. For six months, Zimmer sank deep into depression and dipsomania. And then one night, at the onset of a Vermont winter, Zimmer flipped on the TV and saw one of Mann's old films, "The Teller's Tale." Something about the Mastroianni-handsome Mann in his trademark white tropical suit and pencil mustache, desperately trying to count money and catch the eye of a pretty secretary at the same time, stimulated a dead zone in Zimmer's heart and made him laugh.

The laugh--the discovery that he was not dead--led Zimmer out of the bottle and into a quest for the complete works of Mann. And so he takes to the air that so brutally took his family from him and travels around the world, from Rochester, N.Y., to Paris, from Berkeley to London, to screen the few existing films. The marvelous plots of these lost silent classics give Auster license to unleash his monstrous appetite for story. More significantly, they allow the reader to watch Zimmer watching, to understand how the seeming therapy of the flickering images on the screen reflects Zimmer's own painful loss.

In "Mr. Nobody," Zimmer watches Mann play the man with everything--lovely wife and family, good job, excellent prospects--undone by a treacherous colleague who slips a potion into his drink that causes him to disappear. Mann milks the comic potential of invisibility complete with pratfalls and voyeurism. But night eventually falls, and all is darkness. The invisible Mr. Nobody sneaks into his own house to see how his family is faring. Sitting down at the edge of the bed of his daughter, he reaches out to stroke her hair and then stops, afraid of terrifying her should she awake and find no one there. "It is an affecting sequence," Zimmer says, "and Hector plays it with restraint and simplicity. He has lost the right to touch his own daughter.... In that one small gesture--the hand hovering in the air, the open palm no more than an inch from the girl's head--we understand that Hector has been reduced to nothing."

The lost Zimmer understands the invisible Mann. He publishes his book. And then three months later, a letter arrives, postmarked Albuquerque. " 'Dear Professor Zimmer,' the note said. 'Hector has read your book and would like to meet you. Are you interested in paying us a visit? Yours sincerely, Frieda Spelling (Mrs. Hector Mann).' " In a cinematic flash, 60 years after his disappearance, Mr. Nobody returns to life.

It is not clear, however, that Zimmer is ready to return to life. For the Zimmer who still spends hours sorting the Lego pieces and cataloging the baseball cards of his dead sons, the illusion of this cinematic Lazarus rising from the grave is shrouded in equal parts grief and excitement. Something more real than movies and letters--or his latest project, a translation of memoirist Chateaubriand, who provides the telling epigram for "The Book of Illusions" ("Man has not one and the same life. He has many lives, placed end to end, and that is the cause of his misery.")--has to shock him out of his torpor.

Enter Alma Grund, the goddaughter of Hector Mann, who arrives like a noir heroine, complete with silver-plated, pearl-handled revolver, to take Zimmer to New Mexico by any means necessary. With Alma's entrance, Auster takes his greatest writerly leap. Suddenly the entire tone of the book, from description to dialogue, shifts as Zimmer awakens from academic research and reverie and moves into celluloid action.

"Go ahead and shoot," Zimmer tells Alma. "You'll be doing me a great service." Hector is on his deathbed, Alma replies. Zimmer must come and bear witness and help Hector die.

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